The Five Phrases a Call Centre Manager SHOULD Use


Well, what a response! Thanks to everyone who responded to the ‘Five phrases to avoid’ article, whether supportive, enquiring or critical. It seemed to touch a nerve.

Many of the responses to the article asked for suggestions regarding language patterns that can help, and the alternatives to the five phrases not to use.

1. Never say…

“What you NEED to do …”
“What you SHOULD do …”
“What you MUST do …”

Shoulds and musts are directive and confrontational. They impose change. Often (and not always) the team member has some of the answers in front of them already, it’s just that they can’t see them.

Smart team leaders ask good questions that are directed towards a specific outcome. When team leaders sit alongside call centre staff, or listen in to calls, there is a set of question types that can help raise awareness. When we give individuals the freedom to think for themselves, in a guided format, we allow them to create their own possibilities.

Some of the following conversational ‘prompts’ have the effect of opening up possibilities for a team member.

Opening lines

Well, what do you think about that call?
How do you think that went?
What did you really like?
What were you really pleased with?

Observations to prompt discussion

When you were… I noticed that…
One of the things you did was…
One of the things you said was…
You asked lots of questions to find out …
I think I heard you say…
What do you think was happening in the caller’s mind?

Encourage and challenge

I wonder, is there anything you could have done that would have made that even better?
Right, if you had to do it again…
I’m curious, if you were that customer…
Yes, I agree… What specifically could you have done?

2. Never say…

“Why can’t you?”
What about when the team member gets stuck? Sometimes team members will be frustrated with their own performance and resort to “I just can’t do it” thinking.

A powerful language pattern technique that works really well is Can’t to Can™ pattern.

This is how it works:

Identify the ‘I can’t’
Identify the person’s No-Through-Road Thinking, e.g., “I can’t up-sell.”

Avoid ‘why’
Avoid the temptation to ask, “Why can’t you up-sell?” You now know what happens when you ask the ‘Why?’ question.

First freedom question

Ask the first ‘freedom question’ to raise the topic of possibility: “What would happen if you could do that thing you say you can’t?” We’re looking for benefits here – what would be the benefit of being able to do that thing? It is quite normal to have to ask this question a few times, as the initial programmed response from the team member is to repeat her original message, “Yes, but I told you, I can’t!” Persevere!

Identify benefit

Once the team member has considered the first freedom question, the response will usually identify a specific benefit. In this case it might be something like, “I’ll be able to earn more commission – and keep you off my back, too.” Keep asking until the employee identifies really strong leverage from a series of benefits. Feel-good is a major lever. “I suppose I’d feel better about achieving some up-sells.”

Ask the Simpsons

Once you get the positive response, ask the Simpsons’ Doh! question: “Well, would you like that?” If your team member has any urge to change her work-life for the better the answer will be, “Yes, of course I would!”

Second freedom question

We then ask the second freedom question, “Well, what would have to happen to make that happen?” The only possible answer (apart from “I don’t know”) to this question is a positive suggestion of some sort, typically a fairly high-level generality such as, “I’d need to feel more confident about it.” This is a common response from folk who have difficulty achieving work performance targets.

What happens now is the really smart part

We have helped the team member reach a stage where she has begun to consider options other than not being able to do that thing that she says she can’t do, and we have accessed a response that is ‘generally’ positive. Now we are about to probe a little deeper and clear away the generalisations she presented. All we do is repeat the same question again!

This is the common flow of responses:

Team Leader: “What would have to happen for you to feel more confident in up-selling?”

Employee: “I’d need to know a bit more about the way the insurance policies work. I wasn’t there the day it was explained.” The employee may feel the need to justify why she can’t do that thing, and that’s cool. Remember though, we don’t need to know why she can’t; we just want to help her to do it in future, right?

Team Leader: “Oh, OK! So, what would have to happen for you to know more about the insurance policies?”

Employee: “I’d need some training.”

Team Leader: “Yes, that’s right, I guess you would.” The ‘that’s right’ language pattern confirms that the employee is making useful choices.

“What would have to happen for you to get some training?”

Note how the same core question (What would have to happen?) is being asked again and again. Elegant communicators will change the question very slightly so that it is not perceived as being repeated.

Employee: “I suppose I could ask Jane in the Training Team. She could arrange for me to get on the next session.”

Team Leader: “She could, that’s true. How could you go about asking her?”

Employee: “I’ll just ask her when I next see her.”

Time target

We now have an agreed action plan mapped out. What we don’t have is any form of timescale or sense of urgency.

Team Leader: “Excellent. When will that be?”

Employee: “Oh, pretty soon, I should think.” (This is a generalisation – there is no specificity about when.)

Team Leader: “How soon, specifically?” (‘Specifically’ is a most useful precision tool.)

Employee: “Tomorrow.”


Now we need to summarise our agreement and reinforce the plan.

3. Never say…

“You’ve done well…BUT…” (The But Monster™)
There are two effective alternatives to the But Monster. One contributor had it spot on when she suggested the use of ‘and’.

When you decide to avoid using the word ‘but’ you can either ‘break the sentence’ and start a new one, or you can substitute the word ‘and’ in its place. Using the phrase ‘even better’ is a nice way to stay positive, and of course an upward tonality breathes positivity into any dialogue. It’s important to keep the tone up.

“You were friendly with the customer and what would be great next time is to ask if there is anything else you can help with.”

“Yes, when he called you did acknowledge him, and next time you could use his name to build rapport even more quickly.”

A second response that works really well as a But Monster alternative is ‘full stop’. It breaks the sentence into two parts, the first reflective and ego strengthening, the second suggesting an improvement opportunity:

“Your calls were good! (full stop, deep breath, new sentence.) You know, you could make your performance even better by suggesting one of our additional services as added value for the customer.”

The language we use in encouraging, coaxing and coaching team members is critical to the professionalism of service you offer.

4. Never say…

“How many times have I told you this?”

The temptation to ‘tell, tell, tell’ is understandable; unfortunately ‘telling’ doesn’t always stick. If a ‘telling’ strategy is not working after a number of attempts, it makes sense to use a different development strategy. After all, if you keep using the same strategy you’ll probably keep getting the same results.

Whenever you feel yourself about to use this phrase think about alternatives.

“Maybe it’s the way I’m telling?”

Could I demonstrate? Could I show? Could I sit alongside? Could someone else help this person in a different, more effective way? Could I document the process better? Would a script help this person? A flowchart? A checklist? A mind map? Could we use recordings to help? A recording of ‘excellence’ for her to model? What about a ‘buddy’ to help? Have we explored the reasons for the blockages? Better still, have we explored what the team member thinks would help? Have we used the Can’t to Can™ model? Have we congratulated her when she has got it right? Have we highlighted the ‘structure’ of her success when she has got it right? What’s going on in her mind?

These are just some of the alternatives to consider when ‘telling’ clearly isn’t working.

5. Never say…

“If I were you…”

This is about the patronising language used (often with the best intentions) when trying to help a colleague. People become defensive or resistant when patronised. It is an ineffective method of influencing. It leads the team members to agree to take action despite an underpinning resentment about how they have been communicated with, and consequential begrudging compliance.

Of course, these are only my suggestions, and I know from ‘Five phrases’ not everyone will agree with these approaches. Many of the world’s top brands are already using these language patterns and that’s good enough for me. If you think you can use them, great. If you think it’s hogwash, that’s great too.

Click here for our 11 Things a Call Centre Agent Should Never Say (But Many Do)


Nick Drake-Knight

Nick Drake-Knight

Nick Drake-Knight is an author and change consultant with NDK Group.

Author: Jo Robinson

Published On: 11th Jun 2008 - Last modified: 8th Nov 2017
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  • All common sense!

    Donna 12 Jun at 16:43
  • What fantastic coaching! Glad to see the focus on what a manager should say – rather than what they shouldn’t.

    Kim 12 Jun at 18:16
  • Great to know the common mistakes of coaching. Never thought about in this perspective. Thanks a lot.

    Bijou John 13 Jul at 20:12
  • It is great to listen such things. We get help from this article.

    Muhammad Bilal Akram 6 Feb at 07:49
  • Thanks for this article that is very helpful.

    Pacome 22 Jun at 18:12
  • Thanks for the great stuff

    Its free and educating.

    zu 6 Mar at 18:39
  • I do believe on what u have said, it is true, as the saying that says behaviour breeds behaviour, positive attracts positive.

    Jabulisa Khumalo 27 Apr at 17:26
  • I seem to relate to the above positive injunctions indeed. How can one prepare for irrational responses? I find my responses when presented in the above article is not as fluid as I’d like it to be. Any suggestions on tone/accent control?

    The feedback question, what and happen described above clearly needs to be used with care. I find m wife uses that to manipulate me in the hardest of times, especially when I am switching off…the language of communication/coaching is just annoying. Also any suggestions to ease the tenseness in tone when delivering the sentences as one speaks…will help, any suggestions?

    Sharan 29 Sep at 08:27
  • Now I know how to do it thanks

    Jefferson Balancio 18 Aug at 00:31
  • I am very thankful, it is really great to know how to deal with the costumer

    khadija taleb 29 Jul at 13:04
  • this is great and very helpful. thanks for the details.

    ndindi 25 Sep at 11:18